HOUSTON—Traveling overseas to provide medical care to underprivileged women and children should be an uplifting experience, not a real-life episode of American Horror Story. But Halloween 2017 was filled with horror for Anthonia Nwaorie. The registered nurse and grandmother from the Houston suburb of Katy, Texas, was traveling back to her native Nigeria when, without warning, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) seized several years of savings she was carrying. The U.S. government is now refusing to return Anthonia’s money unless she signs away her civil rights. So Anthonia is teaming up with the Institute for Justice (IJ) to file a federal class-action lawsuit targeting the abusive practice of civil forfeiture.
Anthonia, who immigrated to the U.S. in 1982, was taking $41,377 in cash savings with her to Nigeria to open a medical clinic for women and children in need of help. But as she was boarding an international flight at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH), CBP seized all of the money. Unbeknownst to Anthonia, federal law requires travelers to file a report when they are leaving the country with more than $10,000 in cash. Most people have never heard of this requirement because the government does little to publicize it. International travelers arriving in the U.S. receive a form to declare cash and other items before going through Customs. But there is no such notice or automatic process for outgoing travelers.
“The courts have long established that you have the legal right to travel with any amount of cash, even when you’re traveling internationally,” said Dan Alban, an attorney with IJ, which represents Anthonia and class members in the lawsuit. “No American should lose their property without being convicted of a crime, particularly over the technical violation of a law that few people know about.”
Anthonia was never charged with any crime. The U.S. attorney’s office declined to pursue civil forfeiture of her money and let the 90-day deadline to file a forfeiture complaint pass without action. Under federal statute, CBP now must “promptly release the property.” But instead of following the law, CBP officials sent Anthonia a letter demanding she sign a “Hold Harmless Release Agreement” waiving her rights—including her right to interest and her First Amendment right to sue CBP over anything related to the seizure—in order to get her money back. If Anthonia refuses, the agency threatens to claim she “abandoned” her money and keep it without even giving her a hearing.
“The government took my money for no good reason and kept me from building a medical clinic that can provide healthcare to vulnerable women and children,” said Anthonia. “Now they’re demanding that I sign away my rights to get back what has rightly belonged to me all along. I am an American, and I will not surrender my rights.”
Anthonia and IJ are suing to stop CBP from bullying people like her into signing away their constitutional rights. This class action will represent Anthonia and other innocent victims of CBP’s unlawful and unconstitutional requirement that people sign away their rights to get back property the agency is legally required to return. No one should be forced to surrender their constitutional rights to get back property to which they are legally entitled.
“This case shows how civil forfeiture is inherently abusive,” explained IJ attorney Anya Bidwell. “Anthonia was never charged with a crime, and the government decided not to forfeit her money. But all these months later, she’s still suffering from a seizure the government acknowledges should never have happened. Even when the civil forfeiture process supposedly ‘works’ as designed, it has disastrous effects on innocent people.”
IJ is asking the federal court to put an end to CBP’s behavior and declare it unlawful and unconstitutional, to void any “Hold Harmless” agreements signed by class members, and to order CBP to return seized property to any class members—including Anthonia—whose property was not returned because they did not sign an agreement surrendering their constitutional rights.